I currently have four films my DVD library that deal with the horrific subject of the Holocaust: Judgment at Nuremburg, Stanley Kramer’s masterful 1961 film about the war crimes trial of four fictitious Nazi judges at Nuremburg in 1948; Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg’s highly emotional account of the wartime exploits of Oskar Schindler, a war profiteer who saved over 1,000 Jews from the Nazi death camps; The Diary of Anne Frank, George Stevens’ classic 1959 fact-based portrayal of two families in hiding from the Nazis in wartime Amsterdam; and The Pianist, Roman Polanski’s brilliant film based on the wartime memoirs of Polish composer and pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman.
The Pianist, starring Adrien Brody, Thomas Kretschmann, Maureen Lipman, and Frank Finlay, is a superb 2002 film written by Ronald Harwood and directed by Roman Polanski. Winner of three Academy Awards in 2003 – Best Picture; Best Actor (Brody); and Best Director (Polanski) – The Pianist tells the story of how a renowned Jewish composer and classical pianist was able to survive for six years the worst depravities of the Nazi occupation of Poland, his homeland.
The story is a true one, based upon Wladyslaw Szpilman’s book The Pianist: The Extraordinary True Story of One Man’s Survival in Warsaw, 1939-1945. It begins on September 3, 1939 – two days after the Nazis invade Poland, thereby igniting World War II. The Szpilmans are a close-knit middle-class Jewish family of six adults living in the Polish capital of Warsaw. Wladyslaw Szpilman and his father are professional musicians – “Papa” Szpilman (Frank Finlay) is a concert violinist, and Wladyslaw (Brody) is a professional pianist who plays for the Polish National Radio station. Wladyslaw’s long-suffering mother is “Mama” Szpilman (Maureen Lipman); his younger brother is Henryk (Ed Stoppard), a young man who’s a member of the Jewish intelligentsia and at odds with the world. Two younger sisters – Halina (Jessica Kate Meyer) and Regina (Julia Rayner) – are a journalist and a lawyer. The Szpilmans are a loving family, although they tend to argue with each other on almost every subject they discuss.
The Szpilmans’ lives are turned upside-down almost immediately after the Nazis occupy Warsaw. The new Nazi governor-general issues the first of his anti-Jewish decrees in September 1939; one month later another Nazi diktat establishes the Warsaw Ghetto, a 1.3 mile section of the city where 400,000 Jews from all over Poland will eventually be forced to reside. The Szpilmans must give up their middle-class home and all their belongings and crowd into a tiny flat within the walls of the ghetto.
The Szpilmans initially think they’re safer inside the Warsaw Ghetto, but they’re not. The Nazis continue committing atrocities against all Jews under their control. Murder, theft, rape, torture, mass executions, and brutal assaults against men, women, and children of all ages are the order of the day. It’s all part of a Nazi master plan leading to their “Final Solution.” By late 1941, the Nazis have begun transporting Jews, in increasing numbers, from the Warsaw Ghetto to a small town in eastern Poland called Treblinka.
The Szpilmans manage to stay together until August 1942. Wladyslaw and Henryk become affiliated with a Jewish underground organization that publishes anti-Nazi propaganda and assists in finding jobs for those unable to find work. But their luck finally runs out. On August 16, 1942, they are among a large group of Jews who are rounded up and herded onto railroad cars bound for the extermination camp at Treblinka…
Help from an unexpected source permits Wladyslaw to escape – by himself – from the journey to Treblinka and certain extermination. He watches tearfully and helplessly as his family is herded onto a freight car, and then he flees back into the relative safety of a now nearly deserted ghetto.
For the next three years, Wladyslaw must fend for himself as he tries to keep one step ahead of Nazi death squads whose task is to ferret out and execute all remaining Jews who may be hiding within the walls of the ghetto. The second half of The Pianist is a powerful, well-told account of the lengths to which Wladyslaw Szpilman must go in order to survive, and the key role that one German army officer plays in determining Szpilman’s ultimate fate.
In many ways, The Pianist may be the best of the four films about the Holocaust that grace my DVD collection. That says a lot considering the universal acclaim and multiple awards accorded the other three films! The reason I find The Pianist better than Judgment at Nuremberg, Schindler’s list, and The Diary of Anne Frank is because it doesn’t resort to some of the cinematic techniques used by the other filmmakers to manipulate viewers into a sense of outrage, anger, or sadness over the events they portray.
Whatever you may think of Roman Polanski as a man, there can be no denying the fact that his direction of The Pianist is a singularly brilliant achievement. Every scene in this film is a nearly perfect depiction of what Szpilman describes the daily way life in the Warsaw Ghetto for the 400,000 people who were forced to endure years of brutality at the hands of the Nazis. Much to his credit, Polanski – himself a survivor of the Krakow Ghetto – resisted the urge to employ overwrought, melodramatic, and hyperbolic cinematic techniques in making this film. In fact, most scenes – even those portraying horrific acts of violence – seem almost understated. That’s what makes The Pianist such a powerful film. Polanski chose to allow German atrocities, and the Jewish response to them, to speak for themselves.
The acting in The Pianist is superb throughout. Adrien Brody is especially good in his Academy Award-winning role of Wladyslaw Szpilman. He portrays his character as a gentle, artistic soul, but also as a man imbued with a steely strength of body, mind and spirit that permitted Szpilman to endure and survive his Nazi oppressors for six long years. Brody, Lipman, Finlay, Stoppard, Meyer and Rayner form a acting powerful ensemble that beautifully depicts how the members of this close-knit Jewish family interact with each other during this time when they were forced to endure unspeakable physical and psychological torments.
MY VERDICT: Few films have the power to haunt my reveries after I’ve seen them, and fewer still bring me to the point of tears while I’m watching them. The Pianist was not one of those movies that brought me to a state of contemplative wonder, or made me misty-eyed while I viewed it. That in no way implies that I didn’t like the film; on the contrary, I think The Pianist is a brilliant and eloquent testament to one man’s survival of the worst crimes in the history of humankind. Highly recommended!